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Coal Ash Raises Concern in Perry County

8500 tons of coal ash will travel these tracks every day on the way to Perry County's landfill.
photo by Brett Tannehill
8500 tons of coal ash will travel these tracks every day on the way to Perry County's landfill.

By National Public Radio

Tuscaloosa, AL – The Tennessee Valley Authority has begun to ship millions of pounds of toxic coal ash to a landfill in Alabama. But it's not without controversy. The 1-point-2 billion dollar clean-up effort began after the big spill last December in Kingston, Tennessee. Now, claims of environmental racism have cropped up in the predominantly African-American community in Alabama where the coal ash is headed. Brett Tannehill of Alabama Public Radio reports.


The rolling, green countryside near Uniontown in Perry County, Alabama is dotted with grazing cattle and dozens of catfish ponds.

White egrets stand long-legged searching for lunch as smaller birds flit through the cattails. The Reverend James Murdock is chairman of Perry County Concerned Citizens, a group opposed to dumping coal ash in the local landfill. He says the toxic material will destroy the community's best resources.

MURDOCK - I don't see anything that can be done about it. I'm just hoping and praying the Lord will intervene. He's the only one who seems able now.

BAMBERG - We feel like we've been thrown under the bus ...

Robert Bamberg is a local farmer. He says the Environmental Protection Agency is helping the Tennessee Valley Authority at the expense of his community.

BAMBERG - We feel that our clean air and clean water is being compromised, and well as our wishes being compromised. We're being used and taken advantage of by folks all the way back up the chain by people who want to make money.

The EPA says its main priority is to get the coal ash out of the Emory River in Tennessee quickly. But people in Perry County say they're getting dumped on: two-thirds of residents are African-American and the unemployment rate is almost 20-percent. They also point to a 2007 EPA report which found the ash contains trace amounts of arsenic and lead, which can pose health risks. Critics say it's environmental racism. But Perry County Commissioner Albert Turner Jr. says the only racism comes from coal ash opponents.

TURNER - It's not environmental racism, it's called economic racism because we are an African-American controlled county government and now we are able to do what many counties across Alabama cannot do which is control their own economic destiny.

The coal ash will generate about 3-million dollars and 50 new jobs for the region ... which both sides agree are needed. Agreeing on the landfill's role in that economic destiny is another matter. Leo Francendece, EPA's on-site coordinator in Kingston, says it's an emotional issue in Alabama and Tennessee, but people must consider the facts.

FRAN-We generate waste as a society and we can never come up with perfect solutions. But this is one of the best engineered landfills to handle this type of solution.

At the Perry County landfill, a pair of bulldozers spreads and compacts the latest trainload of ash.

DORSETT-Our money here is to be able to put the largest amount of product in the smallest area.

Manager Eddie Dorsett (Dor-sit) says his facility has a thick layer of naturally-occurring chalk underneath the landfill. He says the chalk, combined with a plastic liner and underground wastewater pumps create a state-of-the-art environmental protection system.

DORSETT-This is the new age of landfill ... that's out there. So we've had to be at the highest standard of any landfill that exists today.

But as residents of Kingston, Tennessee saw, when systems fail, the results are disastrous.
Others in this rural community worry about transporting the ash by train because of recent derailments along the route. But the first 3-million tons may be just the beginning for Perry County. Commissioner Turner wants to add coal ash shipments to generate more money for the struggling local economy.

For NPR News, I'm Brett Tannehill in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

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